Beitzah 22

Clean sweep.

Today’s page is governed largely by two mishnahs about Rabban Gamliel. The first lists three stringencies that he held — aspects of festival observance that he followed in accordance with the opinion of Beit Shammai and not Beit Hillel. (They were: Not insulating food cooked on the festival to enjoy on Shabbat, not setting up a metal candelabrum that had fallen over and not baking thick loaves of bread.) Gamliel’s agreement with Shammai here is especially notable because he himself was a descendant of Hillel, so he had more at stake than most in the rivalry between the two schools.

The second mishnah lists three ways Rabban Gamliel was lenient in his observance of festivals. He apparently swept his dining room floor (“room of the couches”) and placed incense on his coals. On Passover, he served an entire roasted goat (even though the sages forbade this because it gave the impression of improperly slaughtering a paschal sacrifice after the destruction of the Temple). All of these, one can’t help but notice, are leniencies that would have helped this wealthy and well-connected rabbi to throw a classy party. A festival banquet just isn’t the same with a dirty floor and stale air, is it? And who doesn’t want to serve an impressive main course?

But the Gemara wonders about some of these leniencies. Did Gamliel really do these things? An eye witness thinks not. According to the Tosefta (a rabbinic text of the same era as the Mishnah), Rabban Gamliel managed to present his guests with pristine floors without actually sweeping them on the festival:

Rabbi Eliezer bar Tzadok said: On many occasions I followed my father into Rabban Gamliel’s house, and they would not actually sweep the room of the couches on the festival, but rather they would sweep it on the eve of the festival and spread sheets over the floor so it would not become dirty. On the following day, when the guests entered, they removed the sheets, and it turned out that the house was cleaned on its own.

It’s not that Rabban Gamliel swept on a festival, says Rabbi Eliezer bar Tzadok, drawing on a childhood memory, but that he would sweep ahead of the festival and then protect the floor with drop cloths which were pulled up just before guests arrived — revealing a floor that was perfectly clean without the need to actually sweep.

Likewise, says Rabbi Eliezer bar Tzadok, Rabban Gamliel wouldn’t actually place incense on the fire during a festival (or, more likely, his servants wouldn’t), but he would burn incense in a special perforated coal pan just in advance of the festival. Then, by closing the slits on this pan, he would trap the fragrant smoke inside. The next day, the slits were opened just as guests arrived, and the smoke poured out, perfuming the house.

These are clever workarounds for the experienced host who wishes to create the right ambiance at his festival banquet. The Gemara wonders, however, how to reconcile the two sources. If Rabban Gamliel’s family followed these practices — spreading a sheet on the floor and burning incense in a special coal pan ahead of the holiday — why would they only do this on a festival? Couldn’t they also do these things on Shabbat? And yet, the mishnah says specifically that he was lenient in these respects on a festival. Perhaps he used the sheet trick on Shabbat, and went ahead and swept on a festival? It’s difficult to say. However he managed it, one can be sure it was a lovely party — fit to express the joy of the festival.

Read all of Beitzah 22 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 22nd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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